Racism, a prominent theme attributed to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, may mean something different according to different individuals. Jane Smiley suggests that, to white Americans, racism is a feeling. But it is something more for black Americans (357). If racism is a feeling, we either have it or we do not. We are either for it or against it. To feel that racism is bad or inhumane or wrong or outrageous is not enough. Feeling something and remaining quiet does not illicit any change or action. Feeling does not change the world. It does however have the potential to motivate and enact change. In regard to Huck Finn, Smiley deems the young boy’s private feelings on racism and his affection, his love for Jim must become a public concern. Huck must express his feelings, his views publically in order to do right by Jim, and by himself. Smiley offers Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in contrast to Twain’s masterpiece, claiming the former is a truly excellent work of literature because it shows the truth behind what really happened. It is more shocking and more accurately depicts typical goings on in the lives of slaves and the individuals involved with the slavery period in American history. But Huck’s story highlights the tension between individual and society.
Huck and Jim share their own private relationship, their own world devoid of societal influences when they are on their raft, on their river. But this private life is not sufficient according to Smiley. Huck needs to act publically. Smiley proposes that white Americans see racism as a private matter, something felt, and something interior. But she points out the importance of its place in reality, in the public life. “The struggle of the individual against society” (361) must be exactly that. There must be a struggle; remaining silent is useless. But it must be realized that, often times, society may present a threatening, volatile environment in which an individual may have no real options. For example, may individuals who disagreed with the horror surrounding World War II wanted to act publically, they wanted to take a stand. But the risk proved fatal in most circumstances. While many tried their best to help those in need or those who were being persecuted, the danger was great. If a man had a family that was reliant upon him for survival, he could not take such risks for example. Sometimes individuals have no other option but to remain silent or to act in small ways rather than on a grander scale.
But I tend to view Huck’s role in the novel as being more active than silent. It is at least a struggle if anything. We see this when he voices his opinion to the reader while witnessing Tom Sawyer’s methods on the Phelps plantation in regard to Jim. Toni Morrison argues that Huck does in fact risk a great deal for his feelings, for Jim. Although society forces Huck to remain silent, to conform, he evolves during his time with Jim. His “secret activism” (391) turns into something more. Huck is unable to articulate his feeling for Jim (389). This is a direct result of society and its rules as well as Huck’s own life experiences with his family life. When Huck is thinking in private, he risks the state of his immortal soul to do right by Jim. He actively decides to do what is right by tearing up the letter to Miss Watson. He is willing to go to hell, to be damned. He is brave. Huck actively rejects society. He risks his own life in order to be with Jim. The novel shows the struggle between Huck the individual thinker and Huck, a somewhat member of society. Huck prevails. He understands the risks and risks anyway. Huck has decided the content of what his character will be. He has taught himself and molded himself into the individual he chooses to be.
Father Kolvenbach suggests that the measure of Jesuit institutions comes from who their students become. The Jesuit identity seeks to educate and nourish the whole person. This comes through contact and experience (34). Huck Finn’s education is based upon his experiences and his contact. His contact with the natural world and with individuals has shaped who he has become. Huck chooses himself over society. This takes a great deal of strength. As history has shown and will show, it is not easy to go against society or the popular belief or sentiment of the time. Abolitionists of the slavery period in American history risked their social standing and even their life in some cases in order to do what they knew was right. Huck Finn’s feelings are silent at times, but he ultimately puts it all on the line. He sacrifices the state of his soul in order to do what is right (which would then not be sacrificing his soul at all). His moments of silence and of action only serve to express the true tension inherent between the individual and the society the individual finds him or herself in. We cannot help but be products of the society we are born into or which we grow in, but we can determine if we will allow society to decide who we will become once we are of an age to develop a social conscience of our own. Huck Finn, the individual, is a success. He gives freedom to his individual self despite the culture he is tied to.